Supplement Feature - October 2022
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A Growing Wave

Waterparks of All Kinds Adapt to the New Normal

By Dave Ramont

It's been a bumpy ride in the recreation business these past couple years, and those in the aquatics industry have been holding on tight. And as everyone has been cautiously climbing back out of the pandemic ditch and getting back to business, the big question remains: Is it business as usual? Here we'll focus on waterparks and how they're faring, looking at things like staffing concerns and new construction but also the fun stuff—current trends and attractions, and ways that facilities are working to get guests back and staying longer, whether indoor or outdoor, private or municipal.

As far as "returning to normal," Jen Gerber, business development leader at Water Technology Inc., an aquatics planning, design and programming firm, thinks those in the industry are all redefining the meaning of "normal." But she said they're absolutely seeing increased interest in developing new projects or reinvesting in existing amenities with modifications. "It seems the collective 'knee jerk' reaction to COVID has started to relax, and everyone is more comfortable thinking about long-term expenditures on quality-of-life initiatives (for public facilities) and opportunities for quality ROI (for private facilities)."

While goals for public and private facilities can be different, she believes there's a collectively hopeful outlook for the future of recreation.

One trend Gerber sees happening is a desire for great data. "Owners are doubling down on the need for quality feasibility study information that can inform their decision-making efforts and help to plan for fundraising, bond measures or even private investments." She explained that these studies are informing those seeking to understand the delta between investing limited funds in aging facilities or directing funds toward new projects.

Una de Boer, chief marketing officer for a designer and manufacturer of waterpark products with North American Offices in Denver, San Diego and Vancouver, Canada, reports that there's definitely pent-up demand for location-based entertainment such as waterparks and theme parks. "We continue to see investments follow the demand, and we have good reason to believe that in most parts of the world, investment will reach pre-pandemic levels in the coming year."

She explained that even if a park is still recovering financially from the downturn, there are ways to upgrade or refurbish existing attractions to "offer guests a refreshing experience."

And indeed, it's not just private destinations making these investments. "Though municipalities generally have smaller projects, some cities do make the investment to build large waterparks comparable to privately owned ones," said de Boer.

She mentioned Epic Waters in Grand Prairie, Texas, as a taxpayer-funded indoor park that set the stage for bigger municipal projects. "Now, we're seeing places like Hattiesburg Zoo in Mississippi announce an expansion through a waterpark, beginning with a mega multilevel aquatic play structure … complete with nine waterslides."

And while it's agreed that both the public and private sectors are moving forward, Gerber explained that on the municipal side there are many variables: community size, existing amenities, available funding, and public support. And she said they're seeing an increase in development in the resort market and the commercial entertainment waterparks. "During COVID, projects that were focused on paid entry and with significant bather loads were more likely to be put on hold. Projects that continued development during COVID were the ones that were publicly funded. Communities will always need to invest in their citizens, and tax dollars have to be used."

According to David Keim, director of business development for a Cohoes, N.Y.-based aquatic design, manufacturing and construction firm, they're busy with projects on both the private and municipal side as well. "People are back in the parks, and operators are looking to deliver on new and exciting experiences for their guests."

What are some of those experiences? Keim said active participation and skill-based activities are hot, especially surfing, with buzz from both the Olympics and the development of new surf parks worldwide. "From large surf pools to deep-water stationary surf waves, to purpose-built learn-to-surf and boogie-boarding pools being developed, the sport is definitely on trend."

Smaller options like a stationary surf wave or learn-to-surf pool are great ways for municipalities to join the market at a lower cost, according to Keim, in terms of purchasing the technology and also in land development costs. He said a stationary surf wave can be built in the space of a tennis court, and mentioned a learn-to-surf pool featured in two municipal parks in Colorado (Water World) and Australia (Funfields Park).

Two "skyline-defining" rides that de Boer mentioned as debuting this year include the a giant rotating attraction described as a cross between a Ferris wheel and a waterslide at Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells, and a side-by-side dueling ride featuring drops and uphill blasts, debuting at Soaky Mountain in Seiverville, Tenn.

While bigger attractions aren't necessarily the most important thing to draw guests, de Boer said they don't hurt. "Iconic attractions might be industry firsts or regional firsts, the biggest or the tallest, or are simply eye-catching and tell a good story. These enhance the experience because guests can appreciate the attractions more and engage with the narrative, which also provides marketing value in an Insta-world."